Wind farms are becoming an increasingly popular way to generate green energy, but little is known about the ecological and socioeconomic effects of the towering windmills that have begun to dot parts of the landscape.
What impact do the tall structures have on the birds and bats in the area? How do the wind farms affect local economies and governmental policy? And what do residents living in communities that are home to the farms think?
Two Texas A&M University researchers have been tapped to join a study that is trying to determine those answers.
“When you’re building these turbines, it’s going to affect local people,” said Wendy Jepson, assistant geography professor at A&M and project researcher. “We’re really interested in that story. How is it affecting the farmers and the citizens of those communities both in terms of economic development and how they perceive change in their landscape and their environment?”
The five-year, $2 million study is designed to study the ecological and socioeconomic impact of wind farms in Texas. It is privately funded by FPL Energy, the largest wind and solar energy producer in the country, according to A&M officials.
Jepson and Christian Brannstrom, an associate geography professor at A&M, are joining with researchers from Texas Christian and Oxford universities for the project. Brannstrom was out of the country and could not be reached last week for comment.
Researchers at Oxford will focus on carbon issues while the TCU team – which includes the A&M researchers – will focus on ecological and socioeconomic impacts. Jepson said she and Brannstrom would focus, in particular, on how the wind farms affect landowner royalties and area economies. The pair also plan to study how the farms affect land use, she said.
“In terms of royalties and new jobs, how is that re-invigorating these rural economies?” Jepson said. “We’re also interested in how the community perceives wind power.”
Wind power doesn’t come without controversy, she said. Some worry about the damage the windmills do to birds and bats. Others worry about how the tall turbines affect the landscape, she said, referring to the East Coast, where an offshore wind farm in Cape Cod has been controversial.
“For some, perhaps, that’s not an issue,” Jepson said. “But for others, that is a great issue.”
Another aspect on which the pair will focus, she said, is environmental governance and how wind farms shape the policies being created by community leaders. The policies being created likely will have long-term effects on how the renewable energy source is developed – or not developed – she said.
The project is exploratory and, thus, part of the researchers’ jobs will be developing protocols for studying the impacts of wind power. Jepson said she has no expectations in regard to what she may discover because there have been no previous studies.
Jepson said researchers hope to take what they learn and feed it back into policymaking, enhancing the advantages of wind power and mitigating the potential problems.
“I just simply am excited about it,” Jepson said, pointing to the Department of Energy’s goal to have 20 percent of homes powered by wind by 2030. “This is in our future. It’s not alternative energy anymore. It’s becoming more mainstream.
“Seeing that we still don’t know a lot of about its impact economically and on the community, for me that is exciting ,that I am involved in exploring these questions. In a way, it’s the beginning of the story rather than the end of one.”
By Holly Huffman
Eagle Staff Writer
27 July 2008
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